Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Thing We Can Only Do Outdoors

Man, we're having perfect Spring weather this week! Cool and sunny with about an hour in the afternoon that makes us strip off our jackets. 

Although I would prefer our school be set-up so that children always had the opportunity to choose between indoors or outdoors, our physical arrangement makes it so that we either all have to be outdoors or all have to be indoors at any given moment. The truth is that for most of this year it's not really mattered as we've just lived through a winter of record-breaking rainfall and it's been good to get a roof over our heads every day, if only to dry off together before plunging back in.

On Tuesday, our 4-5's class started the day outdoors as usual. We stayed out longer than we typically would. When I suggested that we just stay outside to enjoy the weather, however, I was met with rebellion. I don't know if it can be attributed to a dedication to routine, a genuine love for circle time and "indoor stations," or simple contrariness, but there was an overwhelming call from the children to exchange the chamber of commerce weather for fluorescent lighting.

Circle time was rowdy, so we kept it short. When we dispersed into free play, the shooting began almost immediately: "Pew! Pew! Pew!" A revolving half dozen kids, armed with something from our collection of old mobile phones, remote controls and the like were chasing one another around the room in a slow-mo trot (because they know they had all agreed that there would be no running inside) attacking one another as well as any other willing victims. It wasn't all boys, but mostly boys. They grew faster, louder, more spirited with each passing minute, "blasting" everything in their path, until it was what "we" were doing.

Sure, there were other children making art, squishing play dough, and figuring out how to play a board game, but the shooting game dominated. It dominated, increasingly, for 30 minutes, until the the trot had become running and every exclamation was a shout. The room was made smaller by the ramped up action and noise and the adult reminders that we had all agreed to this and that kind of behavior. The walls and ceilings were in the way.

I said, "It seems like you guys want to play outdoors." When they objected, I reasoned that outdoors was really the best place for loud, chasing, blasting games because there they wouldn't be confined by the rules they had made for themselves. Most of those involved in the game were against it at first blush, then, slowly, through a caucus process, convinced one another to support my proposal.  But there were others, those who were not playing blasting games, those engaged, for instance, in figuring out our print-making art project who objected. They weren't ready to leave their projects. I said, "We can just bring the art stuff outside." They considered it for a moment, finally coming to their own consensus that it would, under these conditions, indeed be better outside.

And that was that: we went back outside, where Spring was upon us, the place we really needed to be. There are very few things that we do indoors that can't be done outdoors, but there are many, many things that we do outdoors that we can only be done outdoors.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What Children Are Designed To Do

The bones of young children tend to be quite flexible, and even when they do break, they heal far more quickly than those of adults. 

Their bones are no match for their skin, however, which mends itself astonishingly quickly. 

While bloody owies tend to linger on my flesh for months, theirs often heal overnight.

Their skulls are not fully fused, leaving room for their brains to safely jiggle and swell when they've bumped their heads.

Their teeth replace themselves.

They cry passionately into their pain, unashamed, no concern for what the others might think, an act that not only draws aid, but also, on a basic physiological level, reduces the actual pain.

Both their bodies and memories are short. The former keeps them close to the ground meaning they don't have far fall, while the later makes it possible for them to get right back up again.

We do not encourage risky play at Woodland Park. 

We don't even encourage play for that matter. 

We simply provide a slice of the world: space, a variety of interesting materials, and, of course, other kids.

The children take it from there.

They are designed for this.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Recognizing That We're All In This Together

On Saturday, I caucused for Bernie Sanders. I'm a Democrat, in no small measure because I want to be part of this process. I have nothing against Hillary Clinton. Indeed, I will not just vote for her if she is the nominee, but I will work for her, if only because I have a lot to dislike, even fear, about the Republican frontrunners for president. I'm not interested in debating the merits of my position on the primary because it's too late, I've already cast my vote and am now just waiting for the rest of my fellow citizens to cast theirs.

What I do want to write about is the process of caucusing versus mere voting. A few years back, our state went to all mail-in voting. I like the convenience of it, but I do miss the ritual of showing up at my polling place, of standing in line with my neighbors, of feeling like I'm more than just an oval darkening cog in a machine. Fortunately, the Democrats in Washington state are still caucusing. This is my tenth presidential election as a voter, and my third time caucusing.

I showed up at my Town Hall caucus location at 9 a.m., an hour early. It was a gorgeous, cool, and sunny day, but even if it had been pouring rain, I'd have walked given that it was less than a mile from home. The closer I got, the more I became aware that that people around me, the every day folks walking along with me, were all heading out to do the same thing, to do democracy together, to engage in the process of self-governance.

I filled out my form, identifying myself and my preference (there is no secret ballot at a caucus), then found a seat in the mezzanine where I finished my coffee. A young man asked to share my table, a guy who was not much older than my daughter, a student aspiring to be a transportation engineer like my dad. We immediately fell into a conversation about the future of our country. We were interrupted several times by candidates for office -- not their representatives, but actual candidates running for the state senate or other offices. We paused our dialog to listen, ask questions, and share our own thoughts on what they said. Then, when they left, we went back to our discussion.

As time drew neigh, we went our separate ways. By now the building was packed, hot and humid from all those bodies. The natural bottlenecks were bottlenecking, but I made my way into the auditorium where I took a seat near the stage. The room filled. We raised hands to indicate that we had an empty seat next to us. We were told that turnout had exceeded capacity; people were waiting in the lobby and even outside. I cheered this announcement along with the rest of my neighbors.

The next step was to break off into our various precincts and get to caucusing. An earnest young woman in a Bernie! t-shirt volunteered to stand on stage and hold the sign with our precinct number. We were to gather around her and from there decide if we were going to stay in the auditorium, go downstairs, or even go outdoors to engage in our neighborhood discussion about who should represent us as president. This young woman, by silent consensus, was allowed to assume the role of captain, which basically meant she read the rules aloud and collected, counted, and reported our handwritten "ballots." Her voice wasn't strong, sadly, and we strained to hear her over the cacophony of the room. We asked her to speak up, politely, and she willingly repeated herself when requested. It was not a clean, crisp process, but rather one full of humanity and in the end I'm confident the 30 of us understood the rules.

There was plenty of time to just talk with those sitting or standing nearest. I met several people who live in my building. I had a nice talk with a retired Hillary supporter who had been an early childhood educator: we agreed about everything, except who should be our next president. I talked self governance with a woman with the surname Cherry-Garcia, a Sanders supporter, who is currently a preschool teacher (at least 10 percent of my precinct representatives were educators!). A couple of us were lawyers, a few worked in technology, several were retired. I have no idea if we were representative of our precinct, but we were serving as its representatives by virtue of having shown up.

Some people (okay, a lot of people) don't like the caucus system, but I do. I never feel more connected to democracy, to self-governing with my neighbors, than I do when I caucus. Like I said, this is my third one and I've always come away inspired. Yes, I know that my feelings aren't a good argument for retaining a system that actually engages fewer people and probably excludes some by virtue of their not being able to physically make it (one may, in fact, make one's preference known in absentia, but the cut off for doing this is a week or so prior which means that it's not possible to do it at the last minute). That said, it's a lot harder feel connected to self-governance while darkening little ovals on a mail-in ballot, which is, I think, the power of the caucus.

I came away feeling proud of myself and my neighbors. Only one of us arrived as an "undecided," a guy who I do know from my building. Some of us spoke on behalf of our candidates. The man who would ultimately serve us as a Sanders delegate to the district caucus prefaced his remarks with a story about how Hillary Clinton had single-handedly saved an important hospital in his hometown in New York, before explaining that he had found in Sanders a candidate who spoke for him. A young man with a lot of energy followed that with a fact-filled support of Clinton, followed by a caveat that he would support Bernie Sanders should he be the nominee. Our undecided neighbor asked each of the first two speakers pointed questions, which they answered with the help of the rest of us. There was a slightly tense moment when a Clinton supporter took umbrage at something a Sanders supporter asserted about her candidate, but we all agreed that we should be talking about how good our candidates are, not how bad the other guy is.

I've written a lot about democracy on this blog and that's because fostering in children the knowledge and skills necessary for self-governance is my highest priority as a teacher. I'm proud that at least a half dozen Woodland Park parents were elected to represent our Sanders votes as a delegate. It would be a sad day should the Democratic party in my state give up on the caucus system, I think. We need more democracy, not less.

The caucus promotes this sort of essential democracy, this neighborly discussion about the issues of the day. For all it's flaws, the caucus bears within it the seeds of what I call "deep democracy." It brings us out from behind our isolating screens where the world of politics is presented as bare knuckled brawling or mind-numbing wonkiness or self-satisfied professional politicians seeking to lead rather than represent. The caucus, on the other hand, is we the people, doing the people's business, together, with the civility that comes from recognizing that we're all in this together.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Deciding Where Things Go

We were tidying up the classroom. A three-year-old boy was trying to figure out where to put a Duplo building platform. Another boy, a freshly minted four-year-old, showed him where he was putting them. They had a brief conversation about it:

"That's where they go."

"Maybe they should go inside the box not outside."

"The big box is already full, see?"

They looked inside to confirm. "We'll have to put them outside."

"Yeah, right there."

They then proceeded to put the rest of the building platforms into the same place.

One of the fundamental rights and privileges of ownership is that you get to decide where things go. I was standing right there. They could have asked me, the teacher, where the building platforms were supposed to go, but they didn't even look at me. 

Sometimes the kids tell me that it's "Teacher Tom's school," and I correct them, "No, it's your school." I didn't have to say anything to these guys, they already know it's their school because it's up to them to decide where things go.

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Friday, March 25, 2016

You Can't Measure This Stuff

This is a sort of a companion to yesterday's post about how learning emerges from everyday things in a play-based curriculum.

Preschools are hard on vacuum cleaners. After years of stumbling along using a series of inexpensive machines that needed to be replaced annually, if not more often, we finally sucked it up and purchased a high-end Miele. It's effective, quiet, lightweight and, most importantly, repairable by a local shop from whom we also purchased a service plan. It was still the right decision, but we recently had to wait a week and a half for a part so a family donated an old one that was on its way to the landfill to fill the gap until it was repaired.

When the Miele returned, no one wanted the junker so, naturally, it became part of the our state-of-art, junkyard chic playground. We harvested some parts from it using screwdrivers to use for a robot we were ostensibly building, although mainly we were just having fun dismantling it, after which it got set aside for a few weeks while we focused on other things.

Then, one day, it became the toy of the moment as its cord and hose became the focal point of a massive game.

At one level it was an irregular game of tug-of-war, with children pulling in all directions, one with ever-changing alliances as first one collection of children pulled one way and others another. There was constant chatter as they strained and vied: instructing, coaxing, taunting, and cajoling. The game moved around the space like a giant amoeba, sucking children in, and spitting them out, each finding their place along the line.

At another level it was a game of pure cooperation, especially as they negotiated around tree trunks and swing sets, and people who didn't want to be involved, requiring teamwork to unstick and untangle and work-around. Again, they talked: arguing, agreeing, cooperating.

They were engaged in a massive physics experiment, one that explored tension and angles, flexibility and friction, momentum and inertia. It was a massive sociological experiment, one that tested teamwork and competition, conflict and agreement, problems and problem solving.

If there was a goal to this game, it was in the heads of the individual children who wrestled and ran within it, each pursuing it as they would, learning from it what they sought to learn.

You can't measure this stuff. You can't pretest them to create a baseline for what they already know about playing with an old vacuum cleaner, then re-test them at the end to demonstrate mastery of vacuum wrangling knowledge or skills or whatever. You can't even really know what the children learn from this sort of thing, but the fact that they are engaged, together, in a communal project lets us know that they are, indeed, learning, each discovering, exploring, and confirming things about themselves and others and the physical world.

As the game wore down, we were left with a couple buddies still tugging on the power cord, really leaning into it. I happened to have a pair of wire cutters in my pocket (you never know what you'll find in my pocket). I wielded it in front of them with an evil villain expression, then pantomimed cutting the cord as they pulled in opposite directions. "Do it, Teacher Tom! Cut it!" So I did and, of course, the boys fell onto their backs as we all suspected they would. We did it again and again, until the cord was no longer long enough for pulling.

The cordless vacuum cleaner itself, I believe, is now in the playhouse, standing in a corner, waiting for someone else to have a question that only it can help answer.

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

All We Ever Really Need

A play-based curriculum arises from the world around us, every day, in every common occurrence. 

Last week, we got a pair of new toilets. We crowded around the doorway to watch one, then another be carried past the classroom doorway on a hand truck. We discussed how toilets work, the toilets at our own homes, and other toilets we have known and used.

We went in small groups to watch the plumber at work, removing the old toilets, then setting the new ones. We asked questions which he gladly answered. He told us that his own son, when he was five, intentionally stopped up the toilet at his school so his dad would have to come fix it. We promised we wouldn't do that with these new ones.

We got to look down into the hole in the floor where all our bodily wastes go. The older kids thought this experience would be too frightening for the little kids. Later, maybe because we ourselves were a little frightened, we cracked ourselves up with jokes about toilets.

When the plumber left, we got to use those new toilets. We either approved or felt they were about the same as the old ones.

Later, we found that he had left one of the boxes the toilets came in so we played with with it. We climbed inside and out, the thick cardboard sufficient to hold the weight of a child, putting it through its paces. Now, about a week later, the box is flattened, outdoors, covered in splats of turquoise and magenta paint.

Forget the toys and the games and the adult planning about what we should be learning: the real world is all we ever really need.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
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